Certain biblical characters make their appearance before us at particular times of the year. For instance, we really don’t think about Pilate too much, other than in the Apostles’ Creed, and at Easter. The same goes for Herod and, often, even Peter. A whole cast of biblical characters appear before us each year at advent and Christmas. The cycle of the church year is good as it keeps our lives focused on Christ in time, not making time, with Christ on the side. Yet isn’t it also good to lift these biblical heroes and heroines out of their liturgical chapters and look at them with an eye towards learning what the Holy Spirit has to say, apart from the trappings, good trappings, of a season?
Today, in John 1:1-51, we read about Jesus and the one who traditionally appears to us on the first Sunday in Advent—John the Baptizer. Let’s learn the lessons of his life and ministry as we have Advent in September this year. But this is not just a biographical message on John the Baptist. This is God’s challenge to us from the work of the Holy Spirit in this man. Indeed, this is the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God:
Today I want to bring a message from this passage that I am calling, “Are You a Faithful Witness?” But first let us pray.
Our Father, who sent Your Son as the Living Word to save us from our sins, and lead us into life abundant and life eternal, come to us now, in this passage from Scripture, and lead us to a new way of living as Your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Meet John the Baptist
Have you ever heard the old African-American preacher-call-out in church, “Can I get a witness?” Many a preacher—whatever his culture—has felt that urge to ask that question as he preaches, but has not been brave enough to ask! Many a person in the pew would be too timid to answer that question in earnest!
Well, John was not timid. If God were to ask, Can I get a witness? John, the cousin of Jesus, would be the first to stand up!
I will never forget the feelings I had as a little boy whenever I heard about John the Baptist. I was at Amite Baptist Church and although my family had been Methodist, we could only catch a ride to the Baptist church. When I hear preaching about this cousin of our Lord, I felt sorry for the Methodist and Catholics and Pentecostals because they had to put up with a character in the Bible who was a Baptist and they didn’t have anyone to point to! Well, the first thing to learn about John the Baptist is that he was not a Baptist! At least he was not a Baptist like we think of it. I wish someone had told me that when I was seven and I could have avoided a lot of theological arguments with kids on the playground over which denomination is actually the most Biblical! The answer, of course, is Presbyterians! (Just joking all you visiting Baptists!). No, John was not a Baptist, but he was the baptizer. What John was doing was a baptism of repentance, a ritual cleansing of sin, and in the case of Jesus, a divine anointing of the Son of God for His Priestly ministry in the world. You see a priest in the Old Testament could only be anointed (the word used in the Septuagint is the word for baptism) by another priest. The priestly candidate had to be thirty years of age before he assumed his ministry. All of this lines up. John, the son of Zechariah, was a “Cohen,” in the Aaronic line. And Jesus? He was of the line of Judah, but Hebrews tells us that He was a priest like no other.
“For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”” (Hebrews 7:17 ESV)
Jesus is our great High Priest. And so John is the Baptizer of not only those who repent, but for one Man, Jesus of Nazareth, John is the one who anoints the new High Priest of this New Covenant.
He was that and much more. He was, indeed, Jesus’ cousin, through Mary and Elizabeth’s relations, although John declares that before this time, he did not know him. Like many families they lived apart and were not playmates. John was a strange figure in strange clothing and ate strange things. In other words, he was a prophet, like those who had gone before. Prophets have always been a bit eccentric. It helps the message. John was a bold preacher of the Word of God and not only called the Jews to repent and believe in the Messiah, but called on the first family, Herod, to abandon the sinful practices that denied the sanctity of marriage, or be judged. Apparently, John did not prescribe to a modern theory that your private life has nothing to do with your life as a governing official. He would also not be popular with those who think that religion has nothing to do with politics. John could never compartmentalize his faith or his calling. All parties were subject to his preaching. That, too, makes him like the prophets of old, like Amos and Joel. John—like his prophetic forefathers—got into a lot of trouble over that, just as one will today when preaching crosses into other spheres of life. John was beheaded for the sake of a lustful puppet King to the Roman Empire. Jesus would later say of his cousin, that no greater one has ever lived. John was the last Old Testament prophet. He lived between two covenants, the Old was passing away and the new was literally walking towards him. There are, because of his unique placement in redemptive history, some practices that don’t repeat. But there are lessons the Lord has given us in this that can help us in our lives as followers and as evangelists, to share Christ with others.
And this leads us to think about our place in this world as Jesus’ witness. John is God’s model for us for being a faithful Gospel witness in this world. So a constant question before us in this text should be, “Am I a faithful witness to Jesus?” in this increasingly secular and sometimes Christo-phobic culture that is willing to accept any idea or moral or ethic but the morals and ethics of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.
Are you a faithful witness to Christ?
Each of us needs to answer that question today. For to answer that question is to answer the question, “Are you living life as a faithful disciple of Jesus.” For a faithful disciple of Jesus is one who witnesses to Him.
You may have to make adjustments if necessary. You might need to rededicate your life to Christ, or commit to following Him for the first time. Wherever you are—whatever God says to you today—could come as we study the faithfulness of John 1.19-51. As I studied this passage in my own life this week, there were three questions that popped out of the text and grabbed my heart and my mind. That which I have received I ask you as we consider this portion of God’s Word.
The first question is this:
I. Who are you? (John 1:19-25)
That is a rather basic question. The question is not just “what is your name?” The question is “what is your self identity?” “What is your story in this world?” “How do you relate to others with this story of yours?”
The story of John the Baptizer begins with a threat from those who would demonstrate that they were threatened themselves—the religious establishment of the day. The Jews sent clerical delegates—priests and Levites (elders and deacons, we might say)—to try and figure out who this fellow was. There were, and have been, and are now, what we theologians call, “religious nuts” (If that is too academic, forgive me) who seek to fleece the flock. They considered that John might be one of those. So they asked him simply, “Who are you?” John seemed to understand what they were after. He must have thought these inquisitors wanted to know if he was the Messiah because he answered them by saying who he was not. “I am not the Messiah.” “Good,” the religious leaders must have thought. We have that established. But is this delusional fool out here in the rough thinking he is someone else?” So they wanted to know if he was Elijah (Matthew 16:14) or if he was the Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15,18), referring to Moses’ prophecy about a greater prophet arising to lead the people. The answer was all “no.” But John got them straight with his answer,
“John 1:23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
He went on to say that he was unworthy to even unloose the straps of Jesus’ sandals. He was just a voice. He was, we might say, a messenger with a single message.
The lesson for us is clear when we are asked, “Well, who do you think you are?” For to be a Christian is to be part of those Peter calls in 1 Peter 2:9, in the King James, “a peculiar people.” Well, that may be true of me! But most of you are not peculiar! Of course, what Peter meant was what the English Standard Version translates that,
“…a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Yet being God’s people does cause us to be different—set apart—yes, the term could even be holy; for we are God’s holy people. This can cause some who see us to say that we are so different than the world that they come and ask, “Who are you?” or “Who do you think you are?” This usually happens when we profess Christ and then lead lives that seek to honor Him by doing some things and abstaining from other things. We honor the Lord’s Day and worship not because our mothers threaten us with a lye soap bath, or taking away our X-Boxes, but because we love the Lord and His people and want to obey Him. We abstain from the sensuality of this world not because we are prudes, but because we seek to honor the Lord and His Word concerning His revealed will for our lives as husbands and wife and godly men and women and boys and girls. But that can look as weird as John munching on honey and locusts across the Jordan river, and baptizing and preaching in the wilderness. “Who are you?”
The answer of John is ours. We are not anything in ourselves. We have just been called out by God to follow the Lord Jesus. That is all. We are no different than you, we say, except that we are His. We may look funny to you, but we are not following the one you are following. The urges and senses that are common to all of us are not the primary thing that controls our emotions and decisions and our lives. Jesus is. We are no more and no less than just this: we belong to Him.
There is an old question that used to haunt me, when I was not following the Lord, but professing Him and it is this (I am sure you have heard it before): “If you were on trial for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?” We might even borrow the King James language from 1 Peter 2.9 and ask, “Are you as peculiar as God wants you to be?”
There have been times in my life, I am ashamed to say, when no one would have bothered to come looking for me to ask me, “Who are you?” I would have blended in just like all of the others following their own desires and the spirit of this world. Sometimes that is still the case. That is why it is good to come to this text and say, “Lord, let me begin to reflect the family traits of your children, your very own child, who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.” Someone may thing that is strange. But viva la difference!
So, then, who are you? How is your story related to Christ, to His Kingdom, and to the Church and to the world? Answer that in your heart today, through prayer and meditation over this passage, and you will be break free from the existential chains that limit you.
Recently, while serving as an Army Reserve chaplain, I met a young chaplain right out of seminary. I asked him a simple question, “Who are you, son?” He said, “I am a sinner saved by grace telling others about Jesus! I am just living the dream, Sir! ”
I would say he knew who he was. “Who are you?”
Here is a second question that emerges from the text that will help us refine our lives and testimonies as witnesses. It is this:
2. Who is He? (John 1:26-36)
(26) “John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know’”
John changes from himself to Christ. To quote a popular book from a few years ago, “It’s not about you. It is about Him.” That is the force of everything John says. It is not about my eccentric ways or my work. I am just a witness to the One who is coming.
John spends very little time identifying himself and spends most of this text talking about Jesus. That is a good example to us as witnesses of the Lord. In verses 26-36 John answers the question, “Who is He?” by telling others and us:
(1) Jesus is known but unknown in this world (26)
He is among the people, but they do not yet know him. That is the mission of a witness: to make Christ known. Jesus is known in the culturally Christian areas of our nation, like the South and the Midwest. He is known, through religion, in other areas of the nation. He is known in many parts of the world. But he is unknown. To simply know of a historical figure named Jesus is enough to know something about him, but not enough to know the love, grace, power and life that will transform souls from death to eternal life, to save from ****, or to change the world.
That is our mission, as a Church, and as His people: He is known. But there is so much more we need to proclaim to you about this One! You will want to hear! For everything you have dreamed of is contained in Him! To know Him is to not only love Him, but to know what eternal love is, even if you cannot fathom its depth and beauty.
(2) Jesus is Worthy of Praise in this World
John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie’” (26-27).
John said he was not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals. The reason we lift Him up to the world, as believers and as a Church, is that we are unworthy and He is worthy. Only God receives worship and this last Old Testament prophet shows us even in this statement that Jesus is God in the flesh.
Now, in verses 29-34 we get a crystal clear witness about Jesus from John:
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ John 1:31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” John 1:32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. John 1:33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ John 1:34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”” (John 1:29–34 ESV)
Here are the witness we have for Jesus in the world today:
(3) Jesus is the Redeemer of the World
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:30
We are faithful witnesses when we speak of a Christ for the world, larger than our church, larger than our nation, a Christ for the world of men.
(4) Jesus is Beyond the World yet in the World
This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ John 1:31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” John 1:32
John speaks of seeing the Holy Spirit descend upon Him. He says that Christ was among them. Yet John also said that He was before John. Chronologically this was not true. John was older. But this is not what John is saying. We speak of a historical Christ, but we announce that this One is not just a religious leader but was, as John the Apostle writes, the Word who was in the beginning. Paul says that all things were created by Him and for Him. We do not witness to only a historical figure but a historical person who is the Almighty God who created all things. This is the One who pray to. This is the One you bring your burdens to. This is the Christ we present to a broken world. There is no greater message than the God who created you, who placed you in the Garden, who gave you the freedom to fall, also provided the Providence to save you through becoming Man Himself. There is no greater news that this One who created the world is the One who looked down from a criminal’s cross, where His own creation had nailed Him, and cried, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do!” This is the amazing grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Him we proclaim.
(5) Jesus is on a Mission in the World
“He baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” It has been said that Jesus never baptized. He did and He does today, but with the Holy Spirit. Without the baptizing of Christ in His spirit, you and I—no one—could be saved. When we baptize in our sanctuaries, we are, in fact, mimicking the baptizing ministry of our Lord Jesus.
Today Christ is moving across the face of the earth and millions of people are being baptized by Jesus into the world. Our work is to follow Him and witness to Him and He will come down with power on those who cry out to Him.
(6) Jesus is the Almighty God from Another World
The phrase “Son of God” in verse 34 cannot mean anything but deity. He is not a son of God as we are. He is the very essence of the Father come down. This is John’s message and this section concludes in verse 34 with that definitive, inscrutable, incontrovertible, unambiguous assertion by John.
John witnessed to Jesus and there was no mistake about His testimony. There is no greater work today, my beloved, that for each of us as His witnesses, to draw the attention of the world—our friends and family, our children, and the nations—to see the Person of Jesus Himself and to declare Him the sacrifice of God’s love to save and to renew and to establish a kingdom.
I recently had a fine elder in a church in another city write to me to say that he was having problems in Rotary Club. The problem was that he was asked to stop praying in Jesus’ name. He said, I have no other authority to approach the Almighty God but in the authority of Jesus. I cannot convey that to you and others in my public prayers with the name of Jesus. God knows my heart, that only I can come in the name of Jesus, but how would you know? That elder was right on. He stood his ground. He was not trying to be obstinate. He was just being like John—witnessing, even through public prayer, to the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. If you are of another faith, I assume that you will bear witness to what you believe. We cannot help but witness to what is most important in our lives.
“Who is the Jesus you are declaring?” He is the Mediator of a New Covenant, a Covenant of Grace, where the love of God overcomes your sin and mine and offers us eternal life and abundant life.”
A final question emerges in this text, that moves beyond John to others. If we know who we are, sinners saved by grace called to proclaim Jesus as He is preached in the Word of God; if we know who He is, the Lord of grace and glory, then here is a question:
3. What’s Next?
Are You Ready for the “Next Day?” (29, 36, 42)
The remaining verses of John 1 are taken up with “the next day”—two next days (29 and also in 36) in the life of John’s preaching and one day when Jesus goes walking. When we faithfully witness to Jesus, there is always a “next day.” The faithful witness to Jesus always inaugurates a next day. When you witness to Jesus something happens.
In the first day John attracted antagonists. In the second day of this text the Spirit in John’s message attracted those who would believe. Jesus is fully presented by John. In the next day, Andrew and Peter begin to follow. In the next day, Philip is called by Jesus and a holy chain reaction of discipleship begins to take place. Ministry begins to happen. Lives are transformed. Families will be changed forever. And one day this chain reaction of faith will lead to the consuming vision of the ages: “Truly, truly, I say to you, will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (51). For what they would see in the life of Jesus on earth will be gloriously multiplied and finally fulfilled for all to see when He comes again.
That is the big “What’s Next” of witnessing to Jesus Christ. But how does is all start?
This past week I participated in instruction (I am on annual training for the USAR chaplaincy for two weeks) on family counseling. We went over family counseling therapy techniques and, in particular, the use of genograms. A genogram is basically a map that is drawn out, using various symbols for members of the family, patterns in the family, events in the family, and so forth that, as the therapist (or in our case the Army chaplain) can work with the counselees to amass large amounts of information about the family which can, hopefully, help all to understand patterns that might impact present circumstances. So the homework was to draw out our own. Now, you have to know that a circle represents a woman, a wife or a mom or a daughter or sisters or aunt, and a square (what else?) represents male family members. Then those are connected. A horizontal line connecting a circle and a square indicates a marriage. Draw a squiggly line over that and you represent a static or difficult marriage. Draw two lines and it is a very good marriage. Three lines and you have a couple like Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, or a “fusion” of lives in wedded bliss—inseparable. Now if there is a divorce, there are double strike diagonal lines to cut off the relationship in the family gram. On and on it goes. We were to go back three generations. My paper was so filled with boxes and circles and lines and breaks and dots and dashes that I was embarrased to come back to class! I needed therapy for my genogram!!! Well, there was one symbol that was not present. I would add a cross to the genogram. This is when Jesus comes into a life. For at that time, every pattern of sin, every bondage, every dark and terrible sin, every diabolical strain of corruption, and every chain-link of brokenness is obliterated by Jesus Christ changing a life! Indeed, a new family gram is drawn! It is the family of God! When Christ comes into a life, into a family, like into Andrew and Peters, you have a whole new power at work, which brings about pure, happy, joyful new patterns of living!
This is the most exciting and dynamic work that is going on in the universe today: the redemptive work of Jesus transforming the universe. This world will not just end. A new world is being born. When we say “world without end” we are affirming the redemptive work of our Savior who is moving all of life towards a restoration of Eden. There is a climax to chapter one that draws our hearts and minds to the climax of the redemptive story as a whole. This is not all there is. You will see more. You will see glory.
When we become faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ there is always a “what next.”
We’ve sought to better understand being a faithful disciple of Jesus by answering three questions, “Who are you?” “Who is He?” and “What’s Next? Jesus comes through the witness of his faithful people: through John the Baptist, through Monica the mother of Augustine, through the writing of Luther in a Commentary on Romans, and John Wesley is converted; through Donald Gray Barnhouse on the radio and D. James Kennedy is converted; through Mordecai Ham and Billy Graham is converted, and more people have heard about Christ from him than anyone else. Through your mom and dad, through my Aunt Eva, through a friend, and we are saved.
There is a particular genre of historical books out now that re creates historical events. What if Hitler had succeeded in getting the Atomic Bomb early? What is George Washington had been shot by the bullet that barely missed him in his youthful days as a young officer in the wilderness? What if Jesus had never been born?
Apply that to the faithful witnesses in church history—one person who impacted one other who impact millions—to your lfie. What if you were born to parents in a godless home and you never saw Jesus Christ alive in the hearts of those you love? What if that coach never stopped to take time to talk to you in the locker room about your relationship with Christ? What if…? Who was the faithful witness in your life? What if they were not there at just the right time? What if they had just been quiet? There would be no divine genogram—no new power to snap the old patterns of sin and shame, not new hope of a thousand generations of faithfulness.
My beloved there are, in God’s providence, those who are waiting for their faithful witness to come and begin a chain reaction of faith in their lives. The call of Jesus for disciples to “come and follow Me” is given to you, right now. Let’s have no alternative histories for those who need Christ. Be there. And tell them who you are, who He is, and what’s next.
Pardon me, but I really would like to ask you, “Can I get a witness?”
 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. Matthew 3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Matthew 3:15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:13–15 ESV)
This message was preached in three services, to the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rock Hill, SC on September 18, 2011.